I remember putting on record back in 2016 how I thought Creative Assembly’s pivot to Warhammer games was a bad idea. How, “Seeing the series walk away from the real world was a blow,” and that, “This isn’t even the good Warhammer. It’s the dorky medieval one.”
Time and a succession of good video games have proven me very, very wrong. About the first point, at least. The first Total War: Warhammer was released all the way back in 2016, and was pretty great, if also a bit of an odd duck seeing as it was the studio’s first real foray into non-historical Total War settings. The second, however, was a revelation. As big, fresh and fun as a Total War game had ever been, or really, has been since.
Note: this review only covers the game’s single-player campaign, not its multiplayer.
This third entry is not only building off the legacy of those first two games, then, but also Three Kingdoms. The major “historical” release that interrupted the Warhammer games, Three Kingdoms was also Creative Assembly’s last major Total War effort. At the time it felt like a near-perfect marriage of the series’ more serious strengths, and its more recent, RPG-like eccentricities. (I’ve since soured on it a little thanks to its tedious map and limited unit roster.)
In many respects Warhammer III does this effortlessly, in ways that are so clean and successful I didn’t even notice them at first. Sure, in the most immediate sense this is the biggest and baddest Total War: Warhammer yet: it’s gorgeous, it’s explosive, and it’s jam-packed with Warhammer love (and lore). Even it’s tutorial also serves as a narrative prequel to the events of the main game, making it a must-play regardless of your skill level.
Spend a few hours with the game, and you notice there are real improvements to the bedrock of the franchise itself. Like, this is the easiest Total War game I have played. I don’t mean in terms of how difficult the AI is—even on normal it’ll kick your ass if you get sloppy even for an instant. I mean the ease with which this game has streamlined its insanely boring admin. Despite being the worst thing about a Total War game, admin is also quietly the part that you spend the most time doing, and so is the place any kind of improvement whatsoever is most appreciated.
From building outposts in allied territory, to all kinds of options regarding notifications, to improved diplomacy, and even the automation of certain build chains and skill tree upgrades, the management of your empire in Warhammer III is quick and painless, and I love it. You spend a lot less time looking over ledgers and a lot more time fighting battles.
Another very cool thing you might not realise until your second or third playthrough is that the underling systems of Total War are being pushed to their absolute limits with weird and wonderful faction-specific mechanics. I played my second, most successful game as Cathay, for example, who had access to a caravan system which moved a self-contained army across a map, carrying cargo and fighting battles (which you can control). And a whole yin-yang balance to maintain that was threatened literally every time I built or researched something. Then there was a four-way power meter I could adjust every few turns to provide power-ups. And that’s just one of the playable factions. There are seven others, each with their own twists and takes. This makes replaying the game as other sides a lot more interesting than the usual unit differentiation and starting location variety.
Also great: it does the expected thing where everything looks incredible. The map is exploding with vibrant colours, jagged cliffs and lush green mountains, there are towering units, imposing bosses and hero characters who can conjure screen-filling spells. If Warhammer III does nothing else right, it wears its love of the source material on its graphically-intensive sleeves, and it marries them to the slickest, most enjoyable Total War experience in years.
For over a decade now Creative Assembly have been obsessed with Total War’s campaign endgame, restlessly making adjustments to the narrative and gameplay tricks that when triggered are supposed to make their games more interesting than RISK’s “whoever takes over the most wins.” This has happened with every single game in the series since 2011's Shogun 2, and sometimes it has been OK, while at other times—like Warhammer II—a masterstroke. Here, though, I hated it.
Warhammer III’s endgame works like this: at periodic intervals in the game, even early on, portals to the Chaos Realm open up all over the map, and you need to send your best army through one to another dimension. Here reinforcements and resupply are difficult, you’ll face rudimentary puzzles and/or boss fights, then hopefully return ten turns or so later with a demon’s soul. As you do this, every other faction is also racing to the portals to also get one, and Chaos armies are pouring through the rifts on your side of the map, corrupting the landscape and tasking you with defeating them, even though your best army is now otherwise engaged.
If you’ve played through/suffered the Oblivion Gates in Elder Scrolls IV, it’s a very similar premise, and it’s just as annoying. For starters, you need to do it five times to win the game, but it gets tedious after the first 1-2 tries, and that’s assuming you complete each one at the first attempt. If you fail, sorry, you have to wait and try again next time they open up. Worse and more importantly, though, is that it undermines the entire rest of the game. Everything that makes Total War what it is—that balance of combat, expansion, construction and diplomacy—is reduced to a sideshow in the name of completing these portal quests, in essence taking all the best parts of the series and surrendering their importance to an abstracted grind.
In all my playthroughs, for example, after some early-game expansion, I quickly found myself settling in and ignoring almost the entire world around me, from alliances to enemies, because what was the point? The game was structured around sending one very good army through some portals, so it didn’t matter if I conquered three regions or 30, or made any friends (or enemies) in the world around me.
Warhammer II’s endgame was the opposite. It forced you to far-flung corners of the map, to encounter continents and factions you might have otherwise have missed, and in doing so made its world one of the most enjoyable and memorable in series history. Here, players are almost encouraged to be shut-ins, and it sucks that in a game where almost everything else is an improvement on what has come before, Creative Assembly took a huge step backwards with something that had been so successful last time around.
It should be noted there are two ways to win here, like there has been in other games over the last decade: one involves a very old-fashioned “conquer this number of/these certain territories” checklist that is so boring it’s the reason fancier endgames were invented in the first place. The other has the game’s entire narrative structure and cinematic sequences built around it. Both are bad, but the game obviously defaults entirely to the latter unless you really want to avoid it.
This is an enormous bummer, because everything else about this game is so good! In so many ways this is the best Total War game ever made, the latest example of a series that has spent the last 3-4 big releases (we don’t talk about the Saga games here) successfully refining a decades-old formula to keep it fresh and interesting. It’s a shame, then, that having come so far in so many respects this time around, Warhammer III stumbles right where it matters most: at the end.